On a sad 50th anniversary, inspiration from 100 years ago

Thinking about Martin Luther King on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, it occurred to me that he hadn’t even been born a hundred years ago. I decided to look at The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, to look for something from that bleak time that pointed forward in a positive direction.

And I found it: 19-year old Paul Robeson.

The Crisis, March 1918

The March 1918 issue’s “Men of the Month” feature tells us that Robeson is a football All-American and a star student at Rutgers, winner for two consecutive years of the class oratorical prize.  In addition, he “is a varsity debater, plays guard in basketball, throws weights in track, catches in baseball, and is a baritone soloist.”

Robeson went on to play in the NFL (while studying law at Columbia!), but it was his work as a singer and actor, and his political activism, that won him lasting fame. During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted and denied a passport, to the detriment of his career.

But times change, and in 2004 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring him.

I was familiar with Robeson, but I hadn’t heard of Frederick Douglas “Fritz” Pollard, who is standing with Robeson in the photo. It turns out that he, too, entered the history books. He was a star player at Brown, went on to play professional football, and was the first black head coach in the NFL. In addition, he founded the first black-owned newspaper in New York. He served as a pallbearer at Robeson’s funeral in 1976.

Fritz Pollard (Brown University)

Pollard was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, where he was joined by Robeson in 1995. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Brown University in 1981, five years before his death at the age of 92. In 2005, he became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His grandsons represented him at his induction.

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